It has been a while since the United States government executed an inmate. Despite an almost two-decade moratorium, the death penalty will be making a comeback either late this year or in January of 2020. This is according to Attorney General William Barr, who made the announcement today that federal executions will be resumed.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, some 60 inmates currently reside on death row and prosecutors are hoping to add to that list with Dylann Roof and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Roof is an admitted white supremacist who walked into a church in 2015 and murdered nine black Christians. Tsarnaev, you may remember, was convicted in connection with the Boston Marathon terrorist attack.
Barr has directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to set an execution date for five death-row inmates, with the first one set for December 9. In making the announcement, Barr noted that federal death penalty legislation has been passed and that it’s the Justice Department’s job to carry it out.
The federal death penalty applies to all US territories, as well as the 50 states, but most of the federal death row inmates are housed in Terre Haute, IN. Lethal injection was the method used for the last government execution back in 2003.
Taking a life – even if someone is convicted of a crime – can be tricky business. There is no ability for a do-over should evidence come to light that someone was wrongly condemned – and this has happened. As Liberty Nation’s Jeff Charles reported, Jared Wright Jr. was one of 160 death row inmates exonerated since 1973. But we have no way of knowing if those already executed might have been found innocent posthumously, due to the lack of statistics.
How many mistaken executions are acceptable: one, two, ten? That question is more relevant now than ever since the advent of DNA evidence. Historically, there has been a political divide regarding this issue.
In the past, conservatives overwhelmingly supported the death penalty. A Gallop poll conducted in 2017 found 72% of conservatives support capital punishment. But overall, national support for the death penalty has eroded over time, with 56% of those surveyed saying they are for it and 41% against.
Republican support for capital punishment has gone down as well – from a high of 82% to a low of 72%. Independents largely remain the same, hovering in the mid-50s, but Democratic support has dropped precipitously from a high of 65% around the turn of the century to only 39% in 2017.
In announcing the return of federal capital punishment, AG Barr referenced the suffering of victims’ families. Fair enough. But there is no statistical evidence that suffering is depleted once the death penalty is carried out. Still, conservatives have long made the argument that the purpose of capital punishment is mainly that of a deterrent. And that may well be.
Any way you turn this Rubik’s cube, state-sponsored execution can be a sticky wicket. Sound arguments for and against it are valid. With Barr’s announcement that federal death row inmates will get the needle, American citizens might want to revisit this issue, decide what they believe to be the correct course of action, and pray that it is administered with caution and care.